ALONG THE NIOBRARA RIVER — The coyotes broke into a chorus each night, just after sunset, and then again before sunup.
It was the coyote's yips and the wind whispering through the Ponderosa pines and the bounding mule deer and galloping antelope and dancing sharptail grouse and — there it is, another gobble — lots of turkeys that brought me here in search of some redemption.
I needed the distant horizons and vast open spaces that northern Nebraska’s sandhills have to offer. I needed to rekindle the long tradition of a spring turkey hunt with friends that COVID-19 canceled in 2020 (and kept most of our group home still in 2021). I needed a few days with no emails, no social media, no phone calls — with just enough cell service on the highest hilltops to send a text if needed.
Even the usually mind-numbing, 12-hour drive from Duluth seemed exciting this time, driving across endless prairie in southern Minnesota and South Dakota. I cherished the ducks and rooster pheasants and geese we saw along the way. I cherished every story my driving and hunting partner told. I sang along with the ’70s album-rock songs we listened to on satellite radio.
I needed to go somewhere to do something different.
I needed this road trip.
Vaccinated now and about as socially distanced as you can get in the Lower 48, a sandhill country turkey hunt seemed just the ticket. Our humble turkey camp — a pop-up camper, screen tent and an outhouse — is 10 miles from the nearest town, population 154, and 3 or 4 miles by prairie road to the nearest ranch house.
We never saw another person in our area for four days. We did see lots of Merriam's wild turkeys.
And it was just what I needed.
For the past 14 months I’ve been in a homebound funk. Except for a quick pheasant trip to South Dakota in November, I hadn’t really left the Northland at all. It was part melancholy for my favorite place, behind a closed border, that I can’t go to and part respect for the science that says people shouldn’t travel and mix during a pandemic.
I watched with some envy (and some anger) as friends, neighbors and even relatives took fishing or ski or beach trips to Florida or Arizona or Montana when I chose to stay home and sulk because I can’t go to the one place I really want to go. Imagine having a favorite place in the world and not being able to go there for no fault of your own. Imagine this place is where you have spent most of your free time over the last two decades, where you most often do the things you most love to do with the people you most love to do them with.
And then imagine there’s no end in sight when you can return, no obvious light at the end of the tunnel.
Absolutely, this is a 'first-world problem.' I have suffered little from COVID-19, save for a bad week in January and a few months now with little taste or smell. I have not known personally, thank God, any of the nearly 575,0000 Americans or 3.2 million people worldwide who have died from this pandemic. I have not lost my job or my house.
But it’s time I own up that my pandemic funk is real. Depression, doldrums, despair, distant — all of those D-words fit. And it was past time I did something to break those surly bonds. And that’s just what resuming our annual Niobrara turkey hunt did for me.
Hopefully this is the start of a breakout time, for me, and the nation, as we approach, maybe, some sort of normalcy. I’m hoping for a Minnesota turkey hunt, too, and I still have a Wisconsin permit in my wallet. There are fish to be caught, here at home and up in Voyageurs National Park, and friends and family to visit again.
Someday, after many more people get their vaccinations, I’ll get back to my favorite place. But until then a Niobrara River turkey hunt is about as good as it gets.
There go those coyotes singing again. And, there it is, another gobble.
On the road again.